Sometimes my parish priest starts mass by asking us to look around and introduce ourselves to one or two people we don’t know. The exchanges that follow are awkward and brief—a little forced, like when you went to the family reunion as a kid and your mom made you kiss some old auntie you’d never seen before.
But someone has to help us get to know one another. We aren’t doing a great job of it on our own. I’ve been to a few churches like this now, where people hurry out the door as soon as the last song ends, where the people you see every Sunday remain strangers.
The tavern at ten
It’s nice to have real friends at church. I used to have some—friends whose homes I visited, who brought me flowers when I was in the hospital, who came to my wedding.
That was back in my wild university days, when I was a devoted fan of the St. Joseph’s College chapel ten p.m. mass. At St. Joe’s the people I saw every Sunday, even when they weren’t personal friends of mine, were never strangers.
Mass had that neighborhood bar feeling, or like that neighborhood bar on TV anyway, Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” It was kind of like that—a building full of people who made for wonderful companions on the journey.
At St. Joe’s I learned what a treasure good spiritual companions are. The ten p.m. mass kept me going through the worst of my life as a student. I always looked forward to the pewlessness, the enthusiastic, genuinely joyful choir, the priests who stepped into the midst of us to deliver homilies that I actually listened to, and who often came along with us to Tim Hortons for donuts afterwards.
At St. Joe’s, most of the people who sat on the floor around me were students, away from home, most of us happily discovering together that being Catholic really was a good thing.
The cushiony pews of home
Those magical St. Joe’s days were fleeting, of course. I met my husband there, got married there, had my first baby baptized there. After that we moved across the city and started attending a church close to our new home. It was freshly built, massive, filled with cushiony pews and young families.
We saw the same nice people week after week but never came to know anyone by name. Another move has taken us to another church, and I don’t want the same thing to happen.
Spotting Father from the bleachers
At St. Joe’s I learned how spiritually sustaining a strong sense of church community can be. But St. Joe’s was a unique place. The community feeling doesn’t come so easily in parishes with bigger, more diverse congregations, where pews are mandatory and choirs take themselves too seriously, and you can’t even see the priest from your place way in the back.
It’s not like I can’t make friends, though, or feel a bond with my newest companions on the journey. It will just take more effort, choosing to remember the names of the strangers around me, not making a beeline for the exit every Sunday.
And I feel a responsibility to do it, now that I know what I’m missing.